Right and Wrong: Linebacker Leverage in a 4-3 Defense


Our beloved Oregon Ducks are going through some historic defensive difficulties, yet offer glimmers of hope that they will become better on this side of the ball. Today we look at the leverage of Oregon’s linebackers (courtesy of the Grizzled Ol’ Coach, Mike Morris) and learn how their gap assignments can be solved by looking at both good and bad examples.

A fundamental concept of linebacking is “filling and spilling,” as linebackers will fill their assigned gap and spill the play to the outside for waiting edge defenders. In essence linebackers want to make opposing running backs attempt to bounce their run to the outside.

Oregon's defense is lined up correctly.

From Video

Oregon’s defense is lined up correctly.

The Ducks are lined up above in their usual defense with a defensive tackle in the “3 technique” position on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, and the defensive end on the outside shoulder of the tight end in a “9 technique.” Note the positioning of the right linebacker, as he is the focus on this play. Oregon also has a corner blitz about to take place, as well, with the green dotted line above.

The moment of truth is about to arrive.

From Video

The moment of truth is about to arrive.

As you see above, all gaps are all accounted for with defenders, and the linebacker is approaching the pulling guard (No. 73). The technique used now will result in a tackle-for-loss by the defense, or a touchdown for the Huskies.

The key for the linebacker above is to NOT take on the offensive guard head-to-head, as he is outweighed by 80 pounds and will lose that confrontation every time. Instead his technique is to implement a “dip and rip” (we will cover this in another analysis) and for his outside shoulder to attack the inside shoulder of the guard as you see with the yellow arrows above.

This way the above linebacker will be inside the gap with the bulk of the large guard to the outside. Hence, the running back would have bounce outside, into the waiting tackle-for-loss by the Duck corner.

This is not what Brady Hoke wants...

From Video

This is not what Brady Hoke wants …

Yikes. The Duck linebacker did the opposite of what we just walked through; he attacked the outside shoulder of the Husky offensive guard (No. 73) with his inside shoulder and is now being blocked effectively (yellow arrow above), leading to a large hole right through the heart of the defense. Meanwhile, the middle linebacker has allowed the UW offensive tackle to cut him off (green arrow above). A running lane has clearly formed …

Note how both the defensive end above and the blitzing corner would have smothered the running back had he been “spilled” to the outside as planned.

Linebackers (above) always want to attack the side of a blocking offensive lineman and get into his assigned gap. As the Grizzled Ol’ Coach explained,

“When blockers have contact with the middle of the body of the defender, or the numbers, a block is made and the defender has failed his assignment.”

Lining up looks good for the Ducks.

From Video

Lining up looks good for the Ducks.

Let’s take a look at another similar example. To begin the play above, we see the defensive tackle on the outside shoulder again and note the positioning of the defensive end in a “6-technique,” head-on the tight end, likely with “D-Gap” responsibility. It is the linebacker again that makes-or-breaks this play.

The moment of truth for this play...

From Video

The moment of truth for this play …

The crucial moment is illustrated above. We want to see the linebacker take his outside shoulder and drive it up the armpit of the inside shoulder (see yellow arrows above) of the pulling offensive guard (No. 52). In doing so, the Oregon linebacker would be in the inside gap, with the size of the guard taking up the remaining space. Hence, the linebacker would “spill” the running back outside to the Duck defensive end (green arrow above) for a tackle of little to no gain.

Oh crap.

From Video

Oh, crap.

Instead, the Oregon linebacker does the opposite, as you see the dreaded contact on the linebacker’s numbers by No. 52, and a perfect running lane formed up the gut of the Duck defense.

Stuffing the play above was possible with the right technique!

We are not lined up right and it is a killer...

From Video

We are not lined up right and it is a killer …

Now we have an example of the linebacker getting better and doing it right! But then the Oregon defensive right end takes the wrong gap and ruins the execution for the Ducks. The defensive tackle above is in the usual “3-technique” location, and the linebacker featured is in his correct position. The defensive end is lined up (as previously seen) as a “6-technique,” head up on the Husky tight end, with D-Gap responsibility.

The D-Gap is wide open!

From Video

The D-Gap is wide open!

Here, the linebacker above fills the gap and attacks with his outside shoulder, forcing the running back outside. But now the D-Gap is wide open.

Oh, the what-ifs?

From Video

Oh, the what-ifs?

The linebacker has done a wonderful job filling and spilling his gap, but the running back is headed to a wide open running lane. If the defensive end had correctly taken the D-Gap to his outside, instead of the C-Gap to his inside, he would have been smack dab in what is now the open gap and the play could have been a no-gainer or a tackle-for-loss.

So, the linebacker above is improving and attacking the correct shoulder and maintaining gap integrity. But just one Duck defender takes the wrong gap, and Oregon gives up a big play. On the occasional series when this defense works together correctly across all 11 players, they can get the opposing offense off the field.

Coach Morris spoke to how this makes you ponder that the Ducks are not necessarily being blown off the field by superior talent; when they execute their assignments and use the correct technique – they can prevail. It is simply a matter of consistent execution across the board.

Oregon is a long way from that, and it has become evident the transition back to a 4-3 is much more difficult than originally thought. Last week we looked at how the defensive tackles need to improve their techniques to help the linebackers, and that analysis, together with this one, help us learn defensive concepts while understanding what went wrong for the Ducks on the field.

Let’s continue to learn more football, as it helps us enjoy this wonderful game of college football whether we win or lose.

“Oh how we love to learn about our beloved Ducks!”

Charles Fischer  (FishDuck)
College Football Analyst for FishDuck.com
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo from Video

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Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer

Charles Fischer has been an intense fan of the Ducks for thirty years and has written reports on football boards for over a dozen years. Known as “FishDuck” on those boards, he is acknowledged for providing intense detail in his scrimmage reports and in his Xs and Os play analyses. He and his wife Lois, a daughter, Christine, and their dog (Abbie) reside in Eugene, Oregon, where he has been a financial advisor for 30 years serving clients in seven different states. He does not profess to be a coach or analyst, but simply a “hack” that enjoys sharing what he has learned and invites others to correct or add to this body of Oregon Football! See More...

  • Pete

    that first play looks like a carbon copy of the play Oregon used to score against ASU in 2012. Kenjon took that one to the house I think 74 yards. Same blitz and everything.

    • Yes Pete, it is called the POWER PLAY, and is one of the staples of the Oregon offense. I created a video and a couple of analysis articles about the play.


      You would think our defense would have seen it in practice before…..

      • Eric H

        You’d think the defense has seen that play enough in practice to stop it a bit more regularly. It just seems like either players are trying to freelance a bit too much or they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. The football IQ for this team is still pretty low when it comes to how the 4-3 is supposed to work.

        Another thing that I see in some of these clips from the past few weeks is that there doesn’t seem to be the same rallying to the ball that was evident on some of the better Oregon defenses from past seasons. I know even in the ones here, it looks like unblocked defenders are just standing or slowly jogging to the ball when they should be attacking it at full speed once they see where the ball is going.


    Love the looks you give us Fish but here’s my question? football is a sport that a lot is also instinct and of coarse the coaches getting you lined up in the proper play call so my question is why are these guys continually filling the wrong gap the front 7 that is? I mean these classes weren’t that bad even with the defensive recruits.

    • Maitai…I believe the other coaching consultants I talk to can state it better, but I think the technique I spoke of above…going for under the inside shoulder of the blocker approaching you–is basic LB technique whether it is the 3-4 or the 4-3.

      I will let you draw your own conclusions from that.

    • DuckAllYall

      I agree. If we’re not being blown off by superior talent…is it a flaw in the coaching? Just being too young/not enough experience?

  • DonealDuck

    I don’t know what happened with Don Pellum. He had recruited and taught decent to good to sometimes even outstanding linebacking play for many years.

    My lasting memory of the U-dub game is watching Danny Mattingly the one time i actually saw him try to step up into his assigned gap just get absolutely pancaked/trucked by a block. Here is a 6 foot 5, 245 pound physical specimen who in his fourth year in the program still doesn’t know how or at least use the techniques required to fill a gap or take on a block. All I could do was cringe.

    Also, I don’t know why Reggie Daniels and the other safeties on the team have regressed so much that it now requires starting a true freshman at the position, but that is exactly what has happened. I will enjoy rooting for this wonderful young man for the next 4 years, but I do feel that the true freshman should refrain from talking negative about his teammates for 5 minutes after a game until he learns to take the proper pursuit angle, which i have noticed quite a few times and which would have resulted in a 10 yard play instead of a 60 yard play as shown above.

  • DuckNV

    Charles, have you, or are you planning on, addressing defending the following pass play? This is how i saw it unfold against UW.
    1. It is man coverage, the CB on the QB’s left side is assigned to the RB who is also on the left side of the QB. The CB is playing up on the LOS just outside the DE and appears ready to blitz.
    2. RB goes in motion to QB’s right side.
    3. The right side WR and Slot are in single coverage (presumably b/c it’s Man) and at the snap they head deep and/or a post toward the left side of the field taking the CB and S with them.
    4. The CB on the left side is late to pursue the RB when he goes in motion and then is impeded by the rest of the Defensive players as he tries to catch up to the RB.
    5. The pass goes to the wide open RB who has a big open field in front of him.

    I think I’ve seen this play in every Duck game this year which has resulted in a big gain and sometimes a TD. I’m no coach, but it seems to me that if the CB has man responsibility for the RB he can’t come up on the line which immediately takes him out of position if the RB goes in motion to the opposite side. Can you and some of the coaches provide insight as to why we are getting burned by this approach seemingly every game this year? It may be part of a larger defensive scheme, but something clearly is missing in either the scheme or execution.


    • I can have the coaches look at it, but I cannot ask them to screen every play to find it. Please give me quarter, time left in it, down and distance. You can email that to me too. charles@fishduck.com

      • DuckNV

        That makes complete sense. Not sure if I can find that but will send the particulars on once I do. Thanks Charles.

  • Mike Green

    On those plays, Alabama defensive players would be driving everything backwards.

    Ducks also need some push from the defensive line.